Him whom but just before they beheld transfigured in a glorious epiphany upon the mount…”                                                                 Jeremy Taylor

A physicist friend of mine, working on an abstruse problem, told me the other day that he had had an epiphany. What he meant was that all of a sudden he became aware of some unknown aspect of a problem. Not being a religious person he did not know the theological connotation of the word.

As per Christian sacred history when Christ came from Nazareth to Galilee he was baptized in the River Jordan. At this moment the heavens opened, and the Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon him, and there was a voice from above which said: “Thou art my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” [Mark:1: 9-11]

The Baptism of Christ was an event in which the Divine became manifest. Hence it was called Epiphany (display or manifestation).  It is reckoned to have occurred on a day corresponding to our January 6: twelve days after Christmas. In the 4th century the Feast of Epiphany was declared by the Eastern Church to be  “the most honored festival.” Its main feature is the Solemn Blessing of Water in accordance with prescribed rules.

Associated with it is the story of the Three Wise Men: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, who, guided by a moving star, came to Bethlehem with gold, frankincense, and myrrh as gifts for New-born Jesus. The Greeks called them magoi (magi in Latin), derived from the Persian word magu (priest in Zoroastrianism). The English word magic is cognate to it.

In some traditions, the wise men are said to have been kings: In Spanish countries Epiphany is celebrated as el día de los tres reyes (the day of the three kings).

We read in the John (2: 1 – 11) that Christ performed his first miracle at a wedding in a place called Canaa. When there wasn’t enough wine left for the guests, Jesus ordered pots to be filled with water to the brim, and transformed it all into good wine. This too is remembered on the day of Epiphany.

In the collective memory of cultures and traditions, sacred history is no less important than monuments for kings and presidents, poets and soldiers. Sacred history recalls events with inner meaning and inspiration. Christ’s baptism is an affirmation of his spiritual glory, the three wise men represent the rejoicing and gratitude of humanity for the redemption he brought, and the miracle is to remind us of the extraordinary powers of the divine.

I recall seeing Verrochio’s The Baptism of Christ and Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence: two magnificent masterpieces that commemorate Epiphany episodes.

 Epiphany was celebrated with great fanfare in Shakespeare’s time. But the celebration was anything but religious: licentious parties, binge drinking, and loose language were the norm, not unlike how Christmas has been commercialized into an orgy of buying and packing gifts in our own times. Because the play What you Will was first performed in an Inn on the 6 of January (Twelve days after Christmas),  the bard renamed his play, as The Twelfth Night.

January 7, 2016


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